Orianne Lopes, insanely creative, thoughtful photographer and plastic artist, portrays the effects of clichés and stereotypes in a poetic yet provocative series of nude portraits.
Her personal journeys, whether in Rwanda or in herself, lead French, Portugese photographer, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, Orianne Lopez, to create an artistic series that explores the perception of women of African origin in the occident. Her personal realisations and open minded acceptance are strongly depicted through her use of powerful imagery and symbolism, as she poetically and playfully exaggerates universal stereotypes in an attempt to show how untrue they can be.
“The women around me, my family and friends remind me of the tension between being a strong and independent woman but still being stuck in the yokes of our society,” says Orianne as she describes how her personal experiences and moderate feminist ideologies strongly inspired the series titled “Les Mélanies”. In her metaphor referring to egg yolk, she describes the tension that exists in many modern women: a strong and independent woman stuck in a society where she is sometimes forced to submit to constraints imposed by the system. Perhaps her artistic research was extrospective as much as it was introspective, her role of determining her social status as a woman, she says, reflecting on her nude photographic series that explores the portrayal of women of African origin.
Perhaps her strongest influence was one of her closest friends, a young woman with a French mother and a Rwandan father, who shares her love of art. Orianne says, referring to her friend,“She became a very important person, we are very linked on an artistic level, but also on a personal level, we are very close.” This friend invited her to experience the African continent for the first time. “She told me it was the occasion to come, so I went,” says Orianne. During her trip to visit her friend and her family in Rwanda, she discovered that the ideas she had constructed in her mind were not necessarily true.
“I found that all the clichés that I had about Africa are not entirely false, but are nothing like what we perceive them to be here. The people’s attitude or even their way of living, the land, I didn’t expect it. I had a cliché in my mind that was driven by media, by history, by everything, by images, by reports, by documentaires but actually when we go there in person we make our own opinions. I found that everything was not true and that there are things that are very amplified,” says Orianne. The amplified or exaggerated misconceptions of the african continent, particullarly african women are represented in Orianne’s photographic series titled “Les Mélanies” through her use of parodies, symbolism and plastician techniques. “I amplified certain physical characteristics of the african woman, by showing them I attempt to divert away from the stereotypes and denounce them, perhaps not denounce them but put them at the forefront to show that they are not the rule or the norm and not necessarily the truth.” Her journey and her newly gained understanding is portrayed in her work, as she pulls stereotypes out onto the stage in an overly exaggerated matter to emphasise how sometimes ridiculous and false they can be.
Orianne says that once she decided to do a series on women of African origin, she embarked on research that lead her to learn about different personalities that further inspired her work. For example South African, Saartje Baartman, nicknamed the Hottentot or black Venus, who was dehumanised for years, displayed in circuses throughout Britain and Ireland. After slavery was abolished in the 19th century her popularity diminished. She moved to France where she died of disease at a young age, perhaps 25. Even after her death her body was scrutinised and studied by scientists fascinated by her voluptuous form, particularly Georges Cuvier who dissected and displayed her vagina, brain, skeleton and cast in the french museum called Mussée de l’Homme until 1974. Despite being “othered” and objectified, records show that she managed to maintain her dignity. “I find her beautiful and fascinating, even though she was submitted and exhibited, she still preserved her pride,” explains Orianne.
She also looked to women like Josephine Baker who she found to be the opposite of Saartje Baartman. She believes, “Josephine Baker clearly used stereotypes to create a career and become a strong and famous woman. She is representative of that tension of submitting to stereotypes in society but also using them to our advantage.”
Orianne says that her work is her way of responding to stereotypes, misconceptions based on physique and other boundaries created by society. Using symbolism, Orianne attempts to create discussion and thought about stereotypes and their possible negative effects.
Symbolism is an important element of Orianne’s work, perhaps her favourite she says. “I always use symbolism, I can’t do without it,” she adds. In the series “Les Mélanies” she uses different symbols to portray her powerful message.
For example in one photograph she uses seaweed as the model’s hair. This is a reference to the painting, “The Birth of Venus” by Boticelli. In the painting Venus’s hair flows in the air as she stands on a seashell. The seaweed refers to the seashell, but rather in this case it is attributed to the African Venus.
Another example of how Orianne uses photography is in the picture where a banana leaf penetrates a vagina, or rather a sex toy…we assume. “I think it’s for sex, for men who don’t have a a real vagina at home,” she says. Orianne explains that the all shaven, soft vagina is a reference to the porn industry that creates often unreal and once again exaggerated stereotypes of how a woman behaves during intimacy.
Orianne reminds us that even though she uses certain symbols that refer to ideas present in her mind, the same symbols can trigger different emotions or references in that of another’s and that is the beauty of art. Symbolism isn’t Orianne’s sole technique, she has a ray of other passions and talents that she uses to further portray her artistic vision.
“I like to construct things and do it myself. Painting or making these nails for example, they are leaves from bananas, and i just painted it and put it on her fingers and yes I am always doing this(see page), “ she explains. As a teenager, Orianne fell in love with plastic art (any art form that involves sculpting, moulding, or transforming a material or object). “When I was in high school I took art, we could do everything, it was mostly working with plastics and constructing things, making installations…I was passionate about it,” she says. Although photography is Orianne’s key medium, she incorporates other elements such as installations. “Photography was a medium that I often used before, but always in combination with an installation or another medium…It was my way of expression, the first way I had to express myself since I was young. “
Orianne’s hands transform simple everyday things into works of art, each with a powerful meaning behind it. Regardless of her gifted hands, her favourite elements to work with are not objects to be transformed and remoulded to her content but rather human beings. She loves the human interaction, the collaboration. “I asked each woman, how nude they could be, what they wanted, what they preferred, and listened to their suggestions. That is why I really like working with human beings…something happens, we share, and that comes out in the image, creating an emotion.”
Though the body can also be transformed. Orianne says that the body is limitless, you can do anything with it. As a person highly in touch with her body and her “womanhood” she enjoys expressing herself with her body. She finds that how we communicate with our bodies is highly important because it is the first thing people see, their first impression, so it holds a significant place in society. The significance of the body in society motivated Orianne to use nudity as an artistic tool to create imagery that further evokes thought about how women of African decent are represented particularly in the occident.
Many people of African origin now call Europe home, even though in most communities they are not the ethnic majority. As human beings, we are in many ways simple minded. Emotional and mental growth takes time and sacrifice. Willingness to relinquish preconceived notions and even age old beliefs, such as stereotypes, is key to truly opening our minds in the search for truth and knowledge. Abandoning age old beliefs such as stereotypes can often be frightening, because research has shown that as human beings we have a tendency to be strongly discomforted by the unknown. So we often invent myths, theories, and stereotypes to fill those gaps that make us u!ncomfortable. Perhaps this is one reason why we cling so tightly to stereotypes.
Orianne has her own take on stereotypes, she says, “I think stereotypes can be reassuring…I don’t think that it’s necessarily positive because it promotes uniformity, although it’s not completely false, people are similar, and we all want to be like someone.” She thinks that people from the occident have fairly similar features, which is comforting, because as humans we are discomforted by others. She explains, “Maybe it’s also because people from the occident are very banal, you have a nose like this, eyes like this, lips like this, I can be that person or the other person, it’s the same. That could be it. It’s reassuring to have the same people, differences have always been something t!hat people are frightened by.“
“Personally, I think stereotypes are already a parody of something. They are not necessarily true, they are amplified, they are exaggerated.” By displaying these exaggerated stereotypes about women of African origin, Orianne says she wanted to in fact avoid them, and in a sense manoeuvre around them. “I wanted to avoid them, not denounce them, it remains peaceful…because I think when we denounce things in an aggressive manner it doesn’t work, people feel aggressed and don’t try to understand the image.” Orianne says she hopes people consider her work as a poetic piece of art that evokes thought rather than an aggressive critique of society that leads them to turn a blind eye. Opening our minds to new concepts or rethinking age old ones, can lead us to undoubtable growth.
More on Orianne Lopes: http://www.oriannelopes.com/